Unprepared Nepal brace for challenging SAFF Championship campaign

Nepal footballers celebrate with the fans after winning the Prime Minister's Three Nations Cup in March 2023. SAFF Championship 2023
Despite winning the Prime Minister’s Three Nations Cup, Nepal are not seen as a contender for the SAFF Championship.

Nepal’s national football team has left for the Philippines to play a friendly match before heading to Banglore, India to take part in the SAFF Championship.

In previous years, the team has always approached the tournament aiming to win it. However, this year things are different.

Despite being the former runner-up, the football team has no goal. With a team seeing a sea of change, it is almost certain the team will have a hard time during the tournament.

The inability to establish themselves as a strong contender in the South Asian region can be attributed to three primary reasons.

Players leaving the country

Nepal footballers Dinesh Rajbanshi and Tej Tamang before they fly to Australia in January 2023.
Nepal footballers Dinesh Rajbanshi and Tej Tamang before they fly to Australia in January 2023.

In the past year, a large number of players have migrated abroad. While the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA) does not have official data, it is estimated that around 80 to 90 national team players have left the country for a better future abroad.

This affected the recently concluded A Division League but its greater impact is on the national football team as it disrupted the balance within the team which was reflected in their performance during the Prime Minister Three Nations Cup held in Kathmandu in April.

Nepal needing a last-minute goal to draw with Bhutan was a testament to how far off the team has come since the last SAFF Championship when it reached the final for the very first time.

Captain Kiran Chemjong got emotional when ask about the increasing exodus of players during the farewell program held for the team on June 11. He expressed his sadness over how players felt compelled to leave the country as they saw no future in football.

“Players leaving in the middle of the league season is disheartening to see. When I hear news of friends I’ve played with for so long leaving, it pains me. I often ask what the future holds for me,” he said.

He says it was about time the government and relevant sporting bodies did something to address this issue.

“If not, more will go and what happens to the national team then,” he said.

Poor preparations

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The SAFF Championship starts on June 21. But the team only started preparing for the biggest football tournament in South Asia on June 11. Prior to the tournament, the team will play one friendly match against the Philippines before taking on India, Kuwait and Pakistan in the group games.

Due to the delayed conclusion of the league on June 10, the head coach Vincenzo Alberto Annese faced challenges in organising a training camp for the national team for the SAFF Championship. The lack of planning from ANFA and the reluctance of A Division Clubs to release players further hindered his efforts to execute his plans effectively.

Teams usually need a month of training before taking part in a major tournament. However, Nepal’s team will have gotten together a week before the tournament with only one friendly match under their belt. In addition, with the team relatively new, Chemjong understands it will be challenging.

“It is going to be hard. We have had no time to understand each other’s game so I cannot say what will happen in the SAFF Championship,” he said.

Tough competition

SAFF Championship

In a bid to improve the quality of the SAFF Championship, the federation invited two teams from the Gulf region Lebanon and Kuwait. While this move is expected to elevate the overall level of competition, it has also pushed Nepal’s title aspirations further away, considering their inadequate preparation for the tournament.

The South Asian teams will face tough opponents in Lebanon, ranked 99th in the FIFA rankings, and Kuwait, ranked 143rd. Considering that Nepal have not beaten India since 2013, the team beating Kuwait and a changed Pakistan in the group stage is highly unlikely.

“The tournament as a whole is going to be great thanks to Lebanon and Kuwait. We have not had the best of preparations but we will give our all,” said Chemjong.

This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.

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Timalsina was a sports journalist at Onlinekhabar.

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